AOPA Pilot Magazine
August 2007 Volume 50 / Number 8
Charleston, South Carolina
Lowcountry slowdown: A respite — and a trip back in time
The very name evokes a slowdown in pace: Chaaalr-est-ton. You can't help but relax a little as soon as you land even the busy international airport has a thriving general aviation presence. There's plenty to do and see if you're making more than a fuel stop: The food is fantastic, the history is rich, and if all else fails, you can always hop back in the airplane and head for the barrier islands and the beach.
The lowcountry land surrounding Charleston has cradled settlements since long before Europeans first made claim on these shores. Change from wild swamps to the quietly bustling city of today began when the Spanish established Fort San Felipe on Parris Island in 1566.
Christmas in Charleston
Why fly to Charleston during the holidays? How about the Festival of Lights in James Island County Park? "Christmases of Yesterday," which features two Low Country homes decorated for the holidays, the Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House. "Christmas on King Street" Charleston's premier downtown shopping district. Or the historic Market Pavilion Hotel decorated for the holidays.
Depending on your aircraft, Charleston Executive Airport (JZI) is an easy approximate two-hour flight from Richmond, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee; Atlanta; or Jacksonville, Florida. Check AOPA's Internet Flight Planner for your flight planning. There are two paved runways (4,300 feet and 5,000 feet) at JZI and rental cars are available. The airport is just six miles from downtown Charleston.
A century later, King Charles II of Spain gave the Carolinas away in a land deal to eight Lords Proprietors, and Charles Towne was settled on the site in 1680. Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the town thrived as a hub of the slave trade, but also as a fertile ground for rice cultivation and indigo harvest.
The city became Charleston in 1783 following the Revolutionary War. When the Civil War erupted on April 12, 1861, the first shots were fired by Confederate artillery onto the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
For several decades after the war, Charleston's antebellum mansions and historic townhomes fell into disrepair, with near-fatal results: The seeds of the Great Depression began here in the late 1920s with the devastation that the bol weevil wreaked on cotton crops in the Carolinas. Turnaround began with the passing of the first historic preservation ordinance in 1931 the fruits of which tourists today enjoy.
Charleston lies on the South Carolina coast, amidst a Monet of barrier islands and waterways. Navigation here is easy from points north and south follow the coast and you'll find it, southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, and northeast of the resort-laden Hilton Head Island.
Several airports lie within the Charleston metro area: Charleston Executive (JZI), Mount Pleasant (LRO), and Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport (CHS). While Charleston Executive is the primary general aviation airport, Charleston International offers a convenient location depending on your plans for your visit.
Coming into Charleston International, you might follow a C-17 Globemaster or two. An aerial tour of the harbor not only offers views of any ships at the city dock, but also the U.S.S. Yorktown with vintage World War II and Korean War aircraft lining the hangar deck the Citadel, plantations that ring the water, and the Ravenel Bridge the "new" bridge across the Cooper River that separates Charleston proper from Mt. Pleasant to the east.
What to do
From the historic homes and thriving plantations to maritime activities around the harbor, fly-in visitors find plenty to do once on the ground.
The AFB lies in North Charleston, a distinct city from its better-known sister to the southeast. Just across Interstate 526 from the airport is the Charleston Area Convention Center Complex, which houses the Performing Arts Center, featuring nationally touring performers. For the bargain hunter, just three miles from the airport are an outpost of the Tanger Outlets, featuring nearly 100 stores with brand-name goods deeply discounted every day of the year.
Charleston's downtown is centered around the Old City Market, an open-air marketplace for an eye-bending range of goods on Market Street between Meeting Street and East Bay Street. The market area invites you to wander over its brick alleys. Check out one of many not-so-pedestrian tours conducted by Charleston Walks, including the Ghosts & Legends Walk, and others featuring historic homes and Civil War sites.
Whether you're a history buff, or are looking for something for the kids, Charleston's museums offer a wide range of interesting exhibits. The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773, educates on topics from local furniture to native birds.
The South Carolina Aquarium keys off of the area's rich water habitats, while Old Charles Towne's Animal Forest offers a zoo for children of all ages to enjoy. The Children's Museum of the Lowcountry in the market area features a shrimp boat, water exhibits, and a medieval castle among its attractions.
The Charleston area's location in the southeastern United States almost requires that it host a number of plantations and a handful still function as such, while others open their doors and gardens to guests interested in plantation life. The Magnolia Plantation on Ashley River Road features extensive gardens. A weekly bird walk illuminates the diversity of avian life in the area. The movie The Patriot was filmed at Middleton Place Plantation on the harbor. The Butterfly Lakes can be seen well from the air; on the ground, you can immerse yourself in a recreation of eighteenth and nineteenth-century plantation culture. Across the Cooper River, Boone Hall Plantation still operates as it has for more than 320 years. The U-pick fields bring in visitors seasonally for tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, and pumpkins, among other produce.
Art galleries and street music are on offer year round, but Charleston is rightly famous for a couple of festivals that liven the town. The world-famous Spoleto Festival brings in 17 days and nights of music, theater, and dance performances to spaces around the city. The 2008 dates are May 23 through June 8.
The Maritime Festival offers waterside activities the 2007 festival took place May 17 through 20, with a number of tall sailing ships lining the city dock. This year's festival featured the launch of Charleston's own Spirit of South Carolina, a 140-foot long ship built in 1879. The associated pirates camp for the kids sounds like a blast.
For the athlete, the area hosts the famous Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10K run and walk that traverses the Ravenel Bridge from Mt. Pleasant to downtown Charleston. The bridge's incline is four percent over the course of a mile but luckily there is a downhill on the other side, and flats for the rest of the race.
Where to eat
A number of chain restaurants dot the area near the airport. The folks at Corporate Wings, the FBO on the field, recommended the Noisy Oyster for its onion rings, which were fabulous. A full range of seafood and other bar and grill favorites tops the menu at this local chain.
When you head downtown into the Market area, a plethora of fine dining and casual options are available. I can personally vouch for Cru Café, which features a good selection of wines by the glass. The porch seating is intimate and comfortable, and the menu features "gourmet comfort food," with lowcountry favorites mixed in.
For an upscale dining experience, there are several perennial favorites, such as the Peninsula Grill, a steak and chophouse, and Robert's of Charleston, which features Chef Robert, a trained opera singer who serenades diners each evening. We visited McCrady's on Unity Alley, for rich modern-American cuisine.
Want more casual fare? Check out the French brasserie 39 Rue de Jean, or Sticky Fingers RibHouse.
Where to stay
Several hotels lie close to the Charleston Airport, including the Hilton Garden Inn, the Holiday Inn Charleston International & Convention Center, and the Embassy Suites Convention Center.
If you have a shopper on your passenger manifest, you might check into the North Charleston Inn, about three miles from the airport and adjacent to the Tanger Outlets.
Want a more romantic setting? Many bed and breakfasts and inns are located downtown near the Market area, including the Ansonborough Inn, the Andrew Pinckney Inn, and the Charleston Place Hotel.
Corporate Wings was the FBO at Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport at the time of our visit. This 24-hour, seven-days-a-week FBO dispenses Chevron fuel, has on-site car rental, and hangar and transient tie-down space. Corporate Wings is part of the Fuel on Demand network, which offers locked-in pricing on fuel at 25 cents over cost. Fuel purchased at retail from Corporate Wings at press time was $5.28 per gallon so you might consider topping off elsewhere unless you need to, but check prices in AOPA's Airport Directory Online for the most up-to-date fuel price information.
As you might expect at an international airport serviced by airlines, there's a mix of traffic at Charleston. The east side of the field is where the general aviation ramp is located you'll know it because there aren't ten C-17s parked there, nor a pack of Regional Jets. Watch out for arresting devices 1,200 feet from the threshold of Runway 15 and 1,460 feet from the threshold of Runway 33. Military operations by the C-17s occur daily.